Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Ready to Depart

Jan 14, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


Ready to Depart

“God made the world round so we would never be

able to see too far down the road.” 

–Baroness Blixen


The Karen Blixen Museum (opened in 1986)

Nairobi, Kenya



“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…” are the opening words of Karen Blixen’s memoir of her seventeen-year sojourn in Nairobi.  Visiting her former home, now the Karen Blixen Museum, is to return to a yesterday where the “The Dark Continent,” then the domain of British East Africa, was the paradise-playground of rich Europeans.


Author Karen Christentze Dinesen was born in Demark in 1885 at the nineteenth century family estate, Rungsted, a seaside home fifteen miles north of Copenhagen. Her mother, Ingeborg, from the conservative Westenholzes clan, married the footloose Wilhelm, a naval captain in the Franco-Prussian War; afterwards, he lived as a Pawnee hunter and trapper in Minnesota. After Wilhelm’s proposal, Karen’s maternal grandmother asked, “How shall we reckon with an erotic element among us?” The nine-year-old Karen was devastated when he hung himself, brought on either from the shame of syphilis or siring an out-of-wedlock-child.


Karen rejected her mother’s and country’s “homeliness” (her word for ‘bourgeoise’) and attempted to escape a Prufrock existence through writing, painting, and travel. Later, she sought an exit through marriage to a wealthy man. She admitted to being “God’s chosen snob.” She first fell for her Swedish second cousin, Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke, a distant cousin of King Christian of Demark. When he slipped through her net, she settled on Bror, his twin, who offered her a title, and a ticket to a storybook land.


The couple were wed in 1913 in Mombasa, Africa, with Prince Wilhelm of Sweden as a witness. With Westenholzes’ backing, they purchased a 6,000-acre, coffee plantation in the Great Lakes area. They filled the estate with trappings from Denmark: Limoges, China dishes, silverware-and an Irish wolfhound. She christened her home “Mbogani” which means “a house in the woods.” A unique decorating touch was a millstone she had acquired after its former owner’s murder that she fashioned into a table where she sipped tea, smoked, and wrote.


Karen and Bror hunted big game; afterwards, she gushed over the “ecstasy” of the kill. Ernest Hemingway, also smitten with Kenya, used Bror as his model for the character of hunter, Robert Wilson, in his short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Her husband’s fondest memory of Karen was the time she used a whip on two lions that had attacked an ox, lashing them back to the jungle. The act earned her the title: the Honorable Lioness. Despite the disapproval of fellow expatriates, Karen established a school and provided medical care for her workers. When Kamante, from the Kikuyu tribe, later her chef, refused treatment, Karen bandaged his running sores. Her love affair with Africa is embodied in her words, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”


Growing coffee proved unprofitable due to the soil and Bror’s laissez-faire attitude regarding money. Often absent on big game hunts, Karen realized animals were not the only ones he hunted. He infected her with syphilis–probably picked up from a Masai woman in whose tribe the disease ran rampant. Doctors treated her with arsenic that further compromised her health. Karen paid a staggering price for the title of baroness. As determined to save Mbogani in Kenya as Scarlett O’Hara was to save Tara in Atlanta, Baroness Blixen persevered. On one occasion, the Prince of Wales–the future Edward VIII–was her guest. Not only did Karen struggle financially,  life was also disheartening socially for a strong-willed woman in a patriarchal society.


Romance arrived with an English safari hunter, Denys Finch Hatton, a younger son of the Earl of Winchilsea. He literally swept her off her feet when he took her for a flight in his Gypsy Moth over the Serengeti. She wrote to her brother: “I believe that for all time and eternity I am bound to Denys, to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves.” On a New Year’s evening, Denys and Karen sat at the millstone table watching Venus and Jupiter “all close together, in a group on the sky; it was such a radiant sight that you could hardly believe it to be real, and I have never seen it again.” However, her bedroom was often bereft of both husband and lover. The problem was the Baroness wanted to trade the name Karen von Blixen-Finecke for Karen Finch Hatton, a commitment to which her free-spirited lover refused. A few days before their reunion, Denys perished while piloting his plane. The devastated Karen arranged for his burial in the Ngong Hills from where the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya appear in the distance on cloudless days. Karen marked his burial site with an obelisk that held a brass plaque, (subsequently stolen). The inscription bore the words from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “He prayeth well, who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast.”  She hoisted a cloth banner high enough over the grave so that she could view it from Mbogani.


The Depression ended the Karen Coffee Company coffee plantation. Crushed by the loss of her livelihood, health, husband, and lover, Kenya was no longer “where she ought to be.” Karen’s story could have ended with the return of the prodigal daughter to Rungsted, but it was the start of a new chapter. Using the pen name Isak Dinesen, (Isaac translated from the Hebrew as “he who laughs”-in her case, her subject was the human comedy), she wrote her memoir on her father’s slanted desk overlooking the harbor. As she observed, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.” With the publication of Out of Africa and “Babette’s Feast,” she garnered a Nobel Prize nomination. After Ernest Hemingway received the honor for The Old Man and the Sea, he declared the award should have gone to “That beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.” Several gins and tonics later, he added that he was still happy that he had won, as he needed the dough. On a final trip to America, the former lion-hunter was herself lionized, and she dined on oysters with Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. She visited with Southern writers Truman Capote and Carson McCullers. Carson claimed the elderly Baroness danced atop a marble table along with her and Ms. Monroe. Her memory might have been fanciful, but it was one that would have delighted Karen. 


Although she did not have hundreds of workers as she did in Mbogani, in Rungsted she employed a housekeeper, two maids, a private secretary, and a coachman. The author wore turbans and exotic clothing; makeup consisted of a heavily powdered face and kohl-rimmed eyes. A diet of fruit, oysters, and champagne resulted in her seventy-pound frame. She became a compulsive talker, perhaps an offshoot of amphetamines. One scandalizing comment was despite her venereal disease, her marriage had been worth it as it had gifted her the tile of baroness.


The great Dane passed away in 1962 from extreme emaciation. The woman of two continents ended up having a museum in each. In her will, Rungstedlund became the Karen Blixen Museum, inaugurated by Queen Margrethe of Denmark. The home in which she was born, wrote, and died serves as a snow globe of her life on Denmark. The house-museum holds her old wind-up gramophone, a gift from Denys, as well as a screen she painted with the stories she told him in the evenings. Every day the docents fill its rooms with the fresh flowers Karen had adored. The lace window curtains in the living room trail seven feet across the wooden floor. Behind the house is a bird sanctuary with a chart that shows their flight path from Denmark to Africa. In front of a beech tree lies Karen’s grave where the restless woman is at last at rest.


Karen wrote, “If I know a song of Africa…of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?” The answer lies in Mbogani, a three dimensional diary  for the colonial era and one of its most fascinating emigrees. From the home-museum’s columned veranda, visitors can envision white-suited colonials sipping their tea, maintaining the customs of Britain in the Empire’s far-flung outpost.


In 1964, the Danish government purchased Karen’s former home–a remnant of a colonial bungalow–and gifted it to Kenya as a token of the country’s newly won independence from Britain. The director of Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack, donated $8,000 and many of its props towards the establishment of the center. Her home retains her possessions; Louis Vuitton suitcases and black-and-white photographs of her guests, including one of Marilyn Monroe. The green walls display her paintings; the shelves hold Denys’ monogrammed books. In one corner is a lantern that the Baroness hung on her veranda to let her lover know she was home, waiting.


While the name Karen carries pejorative connotations in the Western World, in Nairobi this is not the case. In response to the Baroness’ question, “Does Africa know a song about me?’ the answer is in the affirmative. In contribution to the Dane who had loved their land like her own, the government named the area of her former plantation Karen. Down the road from her museum, is the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, a restaurant with an adjoining shop. The store offers bronzes, paintings, jewelry and assorted crafts. A unique item was a six-inch-high crested crane, an East African bird, made of sisal. The items are on display in an old home; lunch is also available. Karen quoted the poet Walter Savage Landor to express her sentiment, “Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art; I warmed both hands before the Fire of Life; It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”


The View from Her Window: From the window of Mbogani, Karen gazed upon the view of the Ngong Mountains of which she wrote, “crowned with four noble peaks like immoveable darker blue waves against the sky.”